Football without fans is nothing: as spectators return to live sporting events, a look back at the year they weren’t there

As Matthew Futterman wrote in the New York Times back in February, the decision by Melbourne officials to remove fans from the Australian Open, in accordance with the latest Covid-related lockdown in the city, immediately drained the energy from the proceedings. (After this “snap” lockdown, fans would return for the semifinal rounds on through to the finals.)

As a spectator watching remotely, I could only let out a sigh, adding it to the collection of dashed expectations cluttering an increasingly decrepit corner of my mind. Funny, how easy it is to learn to live—or at least, to function—under a never-ending cloud of disillusionment. I can’t even remember what I did last week. Forget about last month. Then it’s been a year of this kind of mentality. It just doesn’t really matter, when you know there’s nothing good to look forward to on the horizon. You realize why Bill Murray had to make a choice in Groundhog Day—at a certain point, doing the same thing over again, with no chance of moving forward, you go insane.

If there were a scene in a(nother) film that could best capture the collective fatigue that lockdowns—and their still-undiagnosed ramifications—engendered in the worldwide populace, it’d have to be Willy Wonka at the end of the (first) Chocolate Factory film, marveling at the way a simple act of kindness can help a weary world to heal.

In short, that’s what it felt like when fans were removed from the Australian Open.

I don’t know how other people responded to the Aussie lockdown, and of course my experience watching from afar pales in comparison to those who actually live in the city and have had to deal with those restrictions on a daily basis, but February saw me at my lowest ebb in the aptly-named Dark Winter.

The prospect of sports being relegated once more to a Bubble-like setting, with no noise other than what was getting picked up from the athletes and coaches on the pitch, or court, fabricated crowd sounds piped in through the loudspeakers—simulated crowd noise Yippee!—struck me as the sort of setting that belongs in a certain rung of hell.

Futterman’s premise was an interesting one: is sport still sport when fans aren’t involved? After watching for the past year, one has to wonder. There is the way you begin playing sports, as a kid: tiny fields or stadiums, nothing more than a smattering of parents in attendance. No glitz or glamor, really, there.

But the spectacle is inextricably linked to the professional version: like a concert or a film—hell, a democratic debate of yore—big-time sporting events allow us to come together and celebrate a team or a sport. That communal experience is a fundamental aspect of being alive—and like so many release valves, this past year, it was ripped away from us with no notice about when it might be allowed back. Or, when it did, we learned it could be ripped away at a moment’s notice. Charlie Brown can only be fooled by Lucy so many times. One might understand, then, how the spectacle side of sport has suffered.

When the fans were barred entry in Melbourne, tennis matches took on the tenor of what football had become once the Premier League returned to action last June: glorified training sessions.

Once the initial curiosity—hmm…wonder what this will be like—had faded, I quickly became disillusioned, and then bored, with this new version of action. I still can’t watch football, which is weird, because I used to never miss a match that involved my favorite team.

Modern football was already fast becoming a glorified simulation—cut and thrust, ruthless efficiency replacing the laconic grace of the greats (I’m thinking Socrates, Cruyff, Prosinečki, and others of the bygone age when baggy jerseys and drag dribbles were de rigeur).

Maybe the fans on hand—the excitement they generated in their sharing of the event—papered over those cracks. Once they were removed from the proceedings, the soulless simulation was left in all its glaring tedium. The things that silence allows you to realize. It was what I’d once read Jock Stein say. “Football without the fans is nothing.”

I wonder what it will look like when the fans do return. We’re already getting a sense of it. March Madness allowed limited amounts of fans for the men’s and women’s tournament games in Indianapolis and San Antonio, respectively. It definitely makes a difference—though I must admit, UCLA’s incredible run to the Final Four was the most fun I’d had watching sports this past year, and that enjoyment had nothing to do with the in-game fan reaction; it was simply that here was a team that played an attractive brand of basketball. They worked hard, played for each other, and accomplished (well, almost) the unthinkable. It hearkened back to what made basketball, and sports, fun.

At the heart of all this is a troublesome feeling that’s had so much time to grow in strength as it’s seeped this past year. That the empty sporting events were an indication of where society was headed as a whole. That the UCLA run will be an aberration, growing more and more rare.

There was Martin Scorsese, in a piece for Harper’s on the filmmaker Federico Fellini, and I could feel my throat catch as he regaled just how wonderful life used to be in New York City. Great films in grand settings—one (at least) on every block. I don’t think we’ll ever see that again, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this seeps into every other form of entertainment—sports included.

Athletes growing increasingly removed from the populace, like the rest of the well-payed, well-heeled members who probably had their finger hovering over the button to spirit away to their underground lairs in New Zealand, or mittel-America, whenever the shit hit the fan this past year.

It was tough for them too; You try being quarantined for weeks at a time! are the responses to this, but the fact remains: the current athletic generation is the most entitled in history, and its members seem to see no problem parroting many of the trendy talking points from those in power vis a vis the hoi polloi. Cut down on social media “abuse” in the interest of keeping their mental health!

The athletes could, of course, just step away from social media, but here’s the rub: a top athlete, these days, is a brand, and removing oneself from social media would dampen some of the incoming revenue, which of course isn’t large enough already.

Here’s the obvious disclaimer—abuse of any kind, at any time, should be immediately ridiculed, but it’s interesting that there is no concept of creating a workshop—where athletes could meet with these abusers and talk it out. They might learn is that most of the abuse hurled by people who wouldn’t think twice of asking the athlete for an autograph in person. Which adds to the philosophical question—is any of this real?

There’s a fascinating story that I’ve heard many a famous person attest to in an interview, or on a podcast. After receiving a particularly nasty message on a social media platform, the celebrity will engage with the sender along the general lines of, WTF dude? only to witness said troll immediately backtrack and offer a weak excuse, something along the lines of, Oh, I really didn’t mean it. I didn’t think you’d ever respond. I’m actually a huge fan. Have a nice day!

The lesson, of course, being that the more outrageous you are, the better chance you have of being seen. Of enjoying a slice of human interaction—something we are becoming increasingly starved of in an atomized society. See literally every trending…topic on social media. The absurd rises to the top. It is exalted. Andrew Schultz recently said on his Flagrant 2 podcast that Skip Bayless judges a tweet successful based upon how inflamed its response gets. The truth, or merit, of his message doesn’t matter at all. It’s the metrics, baby!

We have confirmation, here, of one of the worst inventions in history. A forum in which the average joe can witness so many people enjoying wonderful globs of acclaim. They are noticed! They are not ignored. And in this hell of indifference they stew and stew and search for a way to be seen. To not feel so alone anymore.

Which gets to the heart of what’s so stupid about social media in the first place, of course, that it is in many ways a no-holds-barred environment for people to say whatever they want with no ramifications whatsoever. And athletes are surprised that they come into the crosshairs.

Instead of addressing this growing problem of abuse in a constructive manner, we get the proposal of a blanket ban. Instead of diagnosing why this hatred might be fermenting within a populace starved of anything remotely good for more than a year, we get finger-pointing. Blame game.

When the next lockdown comes, for the next pandemic or slightly-worse-than-usual flu season, and sports are put right back into their sanitized settings, away from those pesky fans, it’ll just be the next nail in the coffin of the idea that this was ever a communal experience in the first place. What teams want are fans paying for their service—if it’s to have their image plastered on a poster, stuck in a seat, or paying premium to see their smiling visage waving frantically during a free throw, so be it.

I’d say that’s overly cynical, but after watching so many examples of service growing mind-numbingly worse this past year, I don’t know…

Courtesy of NBA

Maybe we should just get used to the fact that in the coming years, on balance, we’ll be provided with the methadone of sporting events—without fans. Show some gratitude, peasant! You can still see your face in bright lights on the screen behind the basket! Pay $50 for your virtual ticket pass!

At least, like Scorsese, we’ll have our memories. Yes, I’ve spoken about how fans might be surplus to sporting requirement at the moment, but there’s always the moment that pulls you back in. That makes you remember Oh yeah, this is pretty cool.

For me, it was the Tsitsipas-Kokkinakis match in the second round of the Australian Open. The home-town hero, Thanasi Kokkinakis, had fellow youngster Stefano Tsitsipas on the ropes, and the adoring crowd was reveling in the feats he was performing.

Kooooo-kie, Kooooo-kie (pronounced like the soft drink, not the baked good) rang down from the stands. Even with the curtailed attendance, the acoustics in Rod Laver Arena allowed them to ring out like an amphitheater. For now, at least, something was certain: we still care. Even thousands of miles away, I could tell that.

Game of life, with a twist—and shout. Twitter: @alleywhoops

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